Wednesday, July 30, 2008

freedom isn't free

Rebecca MacKinnon has a great post today in response to a Silicon Valley conference she attended last week. the main observation of her post seems to me to be that Silicon Valley operates as a tenuous "benevolent dictatorship", and remains largely unaware of the massive legal and political regimes that might restrict their innovations and that many in Washington, D.C. spend sleepless nights worrying about. (she also expresses concern about the "benevolent" nature of the dictatorship - more on that later.) and she's absolutely right about the importance of this aspect of technological innovation. with apologies to Team America: World Police: freedom isn't free, it costs folks like you and me. i also agree with her implicit wish that engineers be aware of the fight that goes on in the policy sector, though i wouldn't say that i feel they should assist in it necessarily. they contribute through technological innovation, and others of us contribute in our own ways.

also, at the moment, the fight to preserve openness and innovation in the Internet is going pretty well. the strategy of private sector deployment of Internet access, checked by reasonable government regulation to protect openness and other consumer values, seems to be rolling along. the Commission is poised to put a check on Comcast's activities (see also here), even as Comcast enjoys tremendous growth. 2009 will (hopefully) show us the deployment of open-access wireless services on the 700 mhz spectrum.

we are starting to have a little breathing room, perhaps, so a few people are asking, what next? where do we go from here? Tim Wu has an op-ed in the New York Times today advocating that we pursue alternative sources of bandwidth just as we are pursuing alternative sources of energy. two of his suggestions are municipal wi-fi and buying/owning your own bandwidth (see, e.g., Derek Slater's post on the latter). i'm skeptical of both of these, though they're great ideas and i'm glad that they are part of the conversation. i have more faith in the third approach, encouraging competition among broadband providers.
whether through spectrum (as Wu suggests) or scaling back the monopoly-use rights given to cable and fiber service operators, competition in high-speed Internet service provision has a great deal of potential, but we have to be careful with how we do it. rolling out wires is expensive, after all. and establishing reasonable interconnection charges have plagued the FCC's regulation of the phone network for decades (and have caused worse problems in Japan).

Rebecca MacKinnon's post alludes to another possible direction: looking within the Internet, at the application and service providers there. as she implies, many of us trust our current benevolent dictators, particularly Google and Apple. but scare stories are starting to appear - such as Google selectively releasing some versions of the Android SDK, or Apple persisting in holding iPhone developers to its NDA even though this impacts their ability to share information learned in the software development process and thus limits innovation. Richard Bennett has been trying hard to redirect the Net Neutrality debate away from internet service providers and towards Google. i don't know that i'm lying awake at night over Google yet, but, i'm keeping my eye on the blogs at the least.

there's a lot to think about, and a lot of work to do. as to where the 2009 focus will fall? we will have to see.


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